As you come to know that you are fully and unconditionally loved, you will also come to know that you do not have to fear death. Love is stronger than death; God’s love was there for you before you were born and will be there for you after you have died.
Henri Nouwen – The Weary Christian
It may seem quite strange to many people that death is included in Advent reflections. Death is similar to a birthing experience, where we will leave one reality and then be part of another way of being. Yes it is a mystery to us, yet God is still at the heart of our moving, present and waiting to embrace us as we enter, the ultimate Divine Midwife.
For many people, death and dying can be a traumatic experience, and some never wish to talk about death in any shape or form, however as a recently qualified End-of-Life Doula companion, sometimes called a Death Doula, (Doula is a Greek word for female servant) I realised I had been undertaking this role for many years.
A Death Doula, is sometimes called ‘Amicus Mortis’, (in Latin it means a ‘Friend at/in Death’), someone who journeys and supports people emotionally, spiritually and holds that person in the sacred space between life and death, and allows them to die with their choices in place, with grace and dignity.
As a nurse and minister I have been a friend with death since I was 18 years old, and for me it has always been a privilege. For me, it is the last act of unconditional love that we can give another person, to give of ourselves as they take their final breath, to sit in silence, to hold a hand, or to play their favourite piece of music.
A Doula encourages a person-centred death, where the person who is dying has the control, of who to see or not see, to what the environment will be like, to supporting family members who are grieving and unsure how to react….a friend who will stay by their side.
God, source of unconditional love, enable me to love the dying until they pass through the veil of death. Jesus, my teacher, enable me to reach my hand and be a companion in their last days until they see your hand reach out to them in welcome. Spirit who lives within us all, may my last act of tenderness be one rooted in the one Love until your dance of death becomes a dance of resurrection.
The Rev’d Ruth Dillon is a retired URC minister, member at Glenorchy URC, Exmouth and the Quakers Community, Exmouth and an End of life Doula with End of Life UK and with Dying with Grace, affordable South Devon Doula Support
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Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church for Sunday 3 December 2023 – Advent Week One
Today’s service is led by the Revd Andy Braunston
In difficult times we long for God to do something! We look at the wars of our world, the climate crisis, the mass movements of people, the rising prices and want something to be done and, not surprisingly, we don’t have much confidence in our political leaders and so, as people of faith, we want God to intervene. Today we start the season of Advent – the time when we look forward to Christ’s return in glory which, of course, feeds our desire for God to come and put things right. U2’s song Tomorrow expressed that yearning for Christ with the words “won’t you come back tomorrow?” Yet the Church has always had to live with the hope of Christ’s return and the reality that it’s not yet. My name is Andy Braunston and I’m the United Reformed Church’s Minister for Digital Worship. I’m going to help us, I hope, today focus on this idea of Christ returning, coupled with the idea of living with the reality of God’s silent “not yet.” Let’s worship God together.
Call to Worship
Won’t you come back tomorrow, Lord? There’s much to be done – sea levels rise, wars wage, the poor are on the move displaced by conflict, persecution, and famine, undeterred by the borders we erect. Won’t you come back tomorrow, Lord?
Won’t you come back tomorrow, Lord? There’s sickness, corruption, and danger all around us; who will tear down the barriers we erect? Who will stand up for justice? Who will bring healing for the wounds and scars of life? Won’t you come back tomorrow, Lord?
Won’t you come back tomorrow, Lord? Our schools and public buildings are crumbling, the government is in disarray, our civic life is devalued and there’s no sense of direction. Won’t you come back tomorrow, Lord?
Maybe you won’t come back tomorrow, Lord! Maybe your silence should inspire us to act to change our world and proclaim your coming Kingdom. Maybe the needs of our world cry out for us, not you, to act! Help us to make our world fit for you tomorrow Lord.
Hymn Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending Charles Wesley (1758) Public Domain Sung by Maddy Prior & The Carnival Band– PRS LOML Licence: LE-0032076
Lo! He comes with clouds descending, once for favoured sinners slain; thousand thousand saints attending, swell the triumph of His train: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold Him robed in dreadful majesty; those who set at naught and sold Him, pierced and nailed Him to the tree, deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see.
The dear tokens of His passion still His dazzling body bears; cause of endless exultation to His ransomed worshippers; with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars!
Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee, high on Thine eternal throne; saviour, take the power and glory, claim the kingdom for Thine own; Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Everlasting God, come down!
Prayers of Approach, Confession and Forgiveness
We worship and adore You, Most Holy One high on Your eternal throne. We bring You, this day, our prayers and praises, our pain and protest, our desire and despair, along with our longing for a better world.
We worship and adore you, Lord Jesus, true Messiah coming to reign, even though we set You at naught and nailed you to the tree; forgive us when we turn away from You, when we refuse to proclaim Your coming Kingdom, and when we look to You to clear up our mess.
We worship and adore you, Most Holy Spirit, endlessly exalted on high, and found in the poor. You remind us, again and again, of Your call to make bread, life and beauty available to all. Inspire us to follow, encourage us to accept Your forgiveness, and rouse us to action! Amen.
Prayer for Illumination
Be our refuge, O God, as we hear, contemplate. and respond to Your Word broken open for us; that as we wait for Your return, we proclaim through our love, our lives and our actions, Your coming Kingdom. Amen
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?
Hear us, O Lord, as we voice our laments; help the oppressed and be their sure defence; guard them from plots of scheming enemies. Be a strong refuge for all refugees.
Heal those who have been pierced by wicked lies; shield them from evil lurking in disguise, and from oppressors thinking “No one sees.” Be a strong refuge for all refugees.
Undo the plans that wicked ones devise; let all their scheming bring their own demise. Then with great fear all peoples will agree: God is a refuge for all refugees.
Reading St Mark 13:24-37
Jesus said: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
We live in gloomy times. We see war, poverty, destitute, oppression and climate change leading to refugees on the move leading to richer countries to close their hearts and borders. We see arms manufacturers doing very well out of conflicts, the earth groaning in agony at our continued pillage and plunder of her resources. We see inept companies illegally pollute our rivers and water courses, the self-imposed wounds on our civic and economic life continue to take their toll, crumbling school buildings standing as a metaphor for our crumbling government, and the spectre of unpleasant people running for elected office in countries we are close to leads us to teeter on the edge of despair. Like Isaiah we may cry out in our pain and demand that the heavens open and God come down to deal with the injustice of the ungodly – knowing, of course, that we’re not ungodly ourselves. Yet God failed to appear for Isaiah and fails to appear for us when we want Him to do our bidding. We’re left contemplating His silence and inaction. If we’re of a more apocalyptic outlook, we may see all these things as signs of the end of age – Jesus after all foretold wars and rumours of war as a prelude to his return.
Isaiah faced the disaster of invasion, defeat and deportation; Marks’ readers faced the might of Rome which sacked Jerusalem, ended the religious and social institutions of Jewish state and led to the dispersal of Jews all over north Africa, Europe, and parts of Asia. Isaiah’s words articulated anger and Jesus’ words were used to bring comfort at horrendous times. Now the Church offers us these weeks of Advent to grapple with what the Second Coming might look like in our age where we wrestle with justice being denied the poor, and dictators and despots ending their days in luxury not prison cells. Like Isaiah and U2 we may long for the heavens to be opened and Jesus to return as described in our Gospel reading. Yet we also must wrestle with God’s silence and inaction – an altogether harder task.
Isaiah ministered just under 600 years before Jesus when the Babylonians were the superpower of the age and conquered the Jewish kingdom of Judah. In the face of the political dramas of his time Isaiah longed for God to come and save the people who are asking where God was amidst their pain. Earlier in this passage Isaiah reminded God, and those who heard Isaiah’s words, of the things that God had done in the past. Having recounted God’s saving actions in history, Isaiah confessed sin, begged forgiveness, and reminded both God and his audience that humanity is the work of God’s own hands. Isaiah said to God: “because you hid yourself we transgressed” It’s as if the writer is blaming God for the people’s sins. This claim was not meant to excuse the people but to goad God into action and then, with the verses about God being both like a father and a potter, it’s as if Isaiah is reminding God that He is bound to act, to step in and save the people.
The passage portrays God in two ways – the comfortable image of a saving God who will redeem the people and the disturbing image of a confusing God who absents Himself in time of trouble. Three times Isaiah asked God to reveal His presence. The language of God hiding grapples with some deep theology – theology that we still wrestle with.
In the past, Isaiah writes, God intervened and saved the people. The Bible recounts God leading the people first dry shod from Egypt, then with fire and cloud through the wilderness, and recounts God feeding the people miraculously in the desert, but now God is silent.
In the past the Kingdom was established, and God’s saving acts protected the people – but now God is silent.
Did the people get it wrong in the past? Has God changed His mind? If God intervened in the past why not now? Of course, since the mid 20th Century we’ve had to wrestle with the God who delivered the Jews from Egypt didn’t deliver the 6 million (nor the others) from the death camps. We want the sufferings of today’s world to merit a few mountains shaking with God’s anger but, instead, there’s silence. This is a theological problem for us as much as it was for Isaiah.
The passage from Mark is written in a style known, since the 19th Century, as apocalyptic. When times were hard this style of literature was popular. In the face of Babylon, Greece, and Rome, Jewish people consoled themselves with ideas of the battle between good and evil, and the imminent arrival of the end of the age where everything would be put right. Apocalyptic literature helped people who longed for judgement and the hope of better times. It was often filled with cosmic signs – as today’s passage is – as well as teaching and warnings.
The passage was written at a time when Jews and Christians, like Isaiah, and like us, had to deal with God’s silence. When this was written the Church had to deal with the fact that despite all they believed Jesus hadn’t returned. The earliest eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry were dying, and the Church had to adjust for the long haul. Of course, many still believed that Jesus’ return was imminent and some in the Church may have tried to predict when – hence the words in the final paragraph about no one knowing when the return will be; a bit of theology to counter any enthusiastic believers getting overly excited.
Jesus words foretold the destruction of Jerusalem as a foretaste of the disruption that would accompany the end of the Age. For the contemporary reader, however, whilst we may have much empathy the sack of Jerusalem and its Temple 2000 years ago, these events don’t fill us with fear and dread. The editor put the passage together, drawing on older apocalyptic books, like Daniel, to give hope – things are grim, they are going to get worse, but hold on as, in the end, God will come and put all things right. It’s the same theology as in the Isaiah passage, the hope that in God’s good time all shall be well. Isaiah faced the destruction of the Babylonian empire, Daniel faced the Greek oppression of the Jews; the editor of Mark repurposes those ideas against the backdrop of the Roman empire’s oppression of God’s people. Many now use these stories to give hope in the oppression wrought by our contemporary empires. Many find hope in these stories – hope that Jesus will return and vindicate His people.
At the same time, however, we have to face the fact that whilst we say “Christ will come again” the evidence seems rather to the contrary! In every age believers have hoped that God will intervene, set things right, bring justice, end oppression. In every age the Church has had to grapple with how it must be an agent for change and justice. If God is staying silently up in the heavens, we might need to ask why.
In the Germany of the 1930s one of the most brilliant minds of the Church was the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Known in the UK through a ministry in London and in America through teaching at a seminary there, Bonhoeffer chose to return to Germany in order to resist Hitler and his attempts to control the Church. Imprisoned for being involved in a plot to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote much of his theology from a prison cell awaiting execution. Sadly, he was killed a few weeks before the war ended.
Bonhoeffer saw the Church become Nazified; Nazis were elected to positions of authority, the Church voluntarily agreed to remove pastors and church officials if they had Jewish parents or grandparents, and 20,000 church members petitioned to have the Old Testament removed from the Bible! Against these movements and ideologies Bonhoeffer saw that God was silent. Utterly committed to his faith, Bonhoeffer taught students in an underground seminary, longed to help reconstruct a defeated Germany after the war, and saw the way of the Cross, the way of suffering, as to what we are called. He saw Jesus as the model for all Christians but, controversially held that God wanted us to live our lives as if He were not there. He wrote: “The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us….God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the Cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” Bonhoeffer found again the God who suffers, the God who is with us in the pain. God hides himself, said Bonhoeffer, so we realise that God chooses to relate to us through weakness and vulnerability. The images Isaiah used of God as being like a father or like a potter give a sense of this weak and vulnerable God; with us in the pain and persecution, in the danger and the despair, holding and consoling but not able to stop the madness. A weak and vulnerable God revealed on the Cross not in Isaiah’s desire for mountain shaking and heaven rending fury.
We Want a Happy Ending!
As people of faith we’re always tempted to want happy endings to the stories we tell. The danger Herod posed to the Holy Family ends in exile and restoration. The defeat and degradation of the Cross ends in resurrection after all. In Advent we long for Christ’s return – surely a happy ending in itself! Though I wonder if the Bible always gives us happy endings.
Job goes through Hell but his relatives, animals, land etc were not returned to him. He ends up enjoying God’s favour but with the experience of profound loss.
The Jewish people were restored to their land after defeat and exile but were forever changed by those events and never recovered their former glory.
The Holy Family had to live in exile; we know from stories of refugees that exile brings its own pain and precarious security.
The resurrection didn’t expunge the pain of Calvary – Jesus forever bears those wounds. The glory Christ had came at a dreadful cost.
Even the happy ending in Revelation isn’t what we long for; we’re promised a renewed heaven and earth where the pain isn’t taken away but the tears and mourning stop.
Maybe Bonhoeffer’s difficult ideas of a God who’s left us to get on with it but who inspires us through weakness, vulnerability, and suffering is right. We live in an era where churches in the West live with huge decline. In our lifetimes we’ve seen numbers drop as those who die aren’t replaced and kids who came through Sunday School drift away. We’ve not done anything wrong, we’re riding the wave of a social movement which, at the moment, is suspicious of organised religion and it can feel like God’s abandoned us. We worry about those not here, we wonder if our church will continue into the next generation, we get tired and maybe even resentful. But, in a few weeks’ time we’ll be celebrating the birth of a baby, needy and naked, wrapped in blood, born into exile who would, a few short years later, suffer the disgrace of abandonment on the Cross. The happy ending apocalyptic writers longed for might not be what’s in store – instead the Cross teaches us that victory is found on the rubbish heap, weakness and vulnerability trump might and power and the heavens being rent open might not happen in the way we hope. Let’s pray:
Lord Jesus, we long for Your return but have to live with Your delay. We long for you to put all things right, and so distract ourselves from facing some difficult realities: Your strength is found in weakness, Your glory is found at the civic dump, Your power is most clearly seen in the weak vulnerability of an asylum seeking child.
Help us to see where You speak, where You live, and where You yearn to be found, that You come again in our hearts, and inspire us to live and proclaim Your coming Kingdom. Amen.
Hymn Come Thou Long Expected Jesus Charles Wesley, Public Domain. Sung by Phil & Lythan Nevard & used with their kind permission
Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King, born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious new realm bring. By thine own eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.
Affirmation of Faith
Since its earliest days the Church has proclaimed that: Christ will come again! In times of despair, doubt, and despondency God’s people have hoped: Christ will come again!
Yet we’ve been waiting a long time. Advent after Advent we proclaim: Christ will come again! Yet, at the same time we’ve learned to live with views of power and glory where grace is costly and God is at work on the margins, with the weak and despised. If Christ does come again we’ll see him at work on the edge, with the poor and the least, showing us how to live and love with hope despite God’s silence. Only when we’ve learnt how to live as Jesus taught will Christ come again.
At the end of each prayer I will say “Come Lord Jesus” please respond with the words “Come and inspire us anew.”
Risen Lord Jesus, long expected, with us in our hearts yet hidden from view, we ponder your words anew this Advent as we long for our world to be made right.
We weep over the wars of our world remembering the people of Ukraine, Palestine and Yemen in particular. Inspire those working for peace and justice with your love, wit and wisdom.
Come Lord Jesus…come and inspire us anew.
We yearn for our world to be different, for the hungry to be fed, the poor lifted up, for justice to flow like a mighty river, for the rich to be sent away empty handed and made to pay their fair share yet we live in the world as it is where might is right and power valorised. Teach us quickly O Lord, how to turn away from our power and embrace Your weakness, found on the edge with the destitute and downtrodden.
Come Lord Jesus…come and inspire us anew.
We long for our world, and our nations, to be better governed. We pray for those who hold or seek elected office, that they may be honest, act with integrity, always seeking the welfare of both creation and the poor. We pray for our nations in a long approach to a General Election, that we may vote wisely and hold our political leaders to account, as one day they will have to give account to the king of Kings.
Come Lord Jesus…come and inspire us anew.
As we long for the Kingdom to come we pray as Jesus taught saying:
We look at our world and see the pain and the poverty, the degradation and despair and realise much must be done. We may long for Jesus to return to put these things right but, sometimes, such a longing simply displaces the reality that we are the ones who must act. Teresa of Avila wrote: Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which He looks. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good, yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world. As we wait for the Kingdom to come, we have to act, to give of our time, talents and resources to support charities at home and abroad as well as the Church. Our discipleship and our bank balance are intimately related.
Great God, we give You our thanks and praise, and recognise all You have given us. Bless these gifts, inspire us to use them wisely in the service of Your coming Kingdom. Amen.
HymnThe King Shall Come When Morning Dawns John Brownlie (1907) Public Domain Sung by Chris Brunelle and used with his kind permission.
The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks, when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.
Not as of old a little child, to bear, and fight, and die, but crowned with glory like the sun that lights the morning sky.
O brighter than the rising morn when He, victorious, rose and left the lonesome place of death, despite the rage of foes.
O brighter than that glorious morn shall this fair morning be, when Christ, our King, in beauty comes, and we His face shall see.
The King shall come when morning dawns, and light and beauty brings; “Hail, Christ the Lord!” Thy people pray, come quickly, King of kings!
Since the Last Supper Jesus’ friends have shared bread and wine to both remember Him and to make Him present with us now. As we share bread and wine we are gathered up to the heavenly places, fed by the hand of the Most High and sustained by the Holy Spirit. We listen again to the story of the Last Supper in a paraphrase of Scripture by Isaac Watts.
‘Twas On That Dark, That Doleful Night Isaac Watts, Public Domain, tune written and song performed by Josh Blake
‘Twas on that dark, that doleful night when all the powers of hell rose against the Son of God’s delight and friends betrayed him to his foes:
Before the mournful scene began He took the bread, and blessed, and broke: what love through all his actions ran! What wondrous words of grace he spoke!
“This is my body broke for sin; receive and eat the living food.” Then took the cup and blessed the wine,- “‘Tis the new covеnant in my blood.”
“Do this,” he said, “till time shall end in mеmory of your dying Friend; meet at my table, and record the love of your departed Lord.”
Jesus! thy feast we celebrate; We show thy death, we sing thy name Till thou return, and we shall eat The marriage supper of the Lamb
Come now Holy Spirit, upon these simple things of bread and wine that they may be, for us, the body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ. As we eat and drink these gifts in Your presence we ask you to inspire us to live and work proclaiming the coming Kingdom, where there will be no pain, persecution or poverty, where all Your people will run free, where all creation will sing of Your praise and all will flourish through Jesus, with Jesus, and in Jesus, with You, Most Holy Spirit, all glory belongs to the Most High, now and for ever, Amen.
Lord Jesus, as we have tasted and seen You in these gifts of bread and wine, may we taste Your death and resurrection, and serve You through our earthly journey. May You dawn upon the darkness of our time; may we be ready to receive You when You come in glory and You are all in all, one God in Trinity of love. Amen.
Christ is surely coming bringing his reward, Alpha and Omega, First and Last and Lord: Root and stem of David, brilliant Morning Star: meet your Judge and Saviour, nations near and far; meet your Judge and Saviour, nations near and far!
See the holy city! There they enter in, All by Christ made holy, washed from every sin: thirsty ones, desiring all he loves to give, come for living water, freely drink, and live; come for living water, freely drink, and live!
Grace be with God’s people! Praise his holy name! Father, Son, and Spirit, evermore the same. Hear the certain promise from the eternal home: ‘Surely I come quickly!’ Come, Lord Jesus, come; ‘Surely I come quickly!’ Come, Lord Jesus, come!
May the creator of the stars of night, comfort you as you seek to shine in the gloom.
May the redeemer of the world, inspire you to find him on the edge with the poor and forsaken.
May the eternal flame of divine love, inspire you to search for and proclaim the coming kingdom, even when things seem bleak.
And may the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you, and all whom you love, now and always. Amen.
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